Netflix’s documentary Circus of Books explores the hidden life of director Rachel Mason’s family members while celebrating a lost treasure of gay counterculture.
Here is something analogic we’re going to miss badly. The thrill of embarrassment as we walk for the first time into a porn store and pretend we’ve incidentally lost our way and popped in to ask for directions. Or a furtive glance dropped on another wandering customer as if by mistake. One day, we will probably miss the emotional clumsiness of our disjointed bodies and those places they would walk to to meet other clumsy, charming bodies. Such a place was Los Angeles’s Circus of Books – a non-conventional bookstore to which American artist and director Rachel Mason dedicated a Netflix original documentary of the same name.
Verging on docudrama, Circus of Books sets off to tell the story of a store and its owners – Mason’s own father and mother, Barry and Karen – but half-ventures into family saga and coming-of-age drama territory. A tasty melange of genres that yields the perfect side to the “stranger than fiction” bit.
Circus of Books was a renowned LGBTQ+ den of mirabilia. From action figures to DVDs, from magazines to works of literature and sex toys. Barry and Karen’s shop was the place to be if you wanted to meet like-(open-)minded people or treat yourself to a censorship-free visual tour of naughty bits. Cisgender heterosexuals Barry and Karen took up the business out of economic necessity as the previous owner was struggling with debts and bills – they needed money for their family of five. First, they signed a deal with Larry Flint – the owner of Hustlers magazine – to sell his publications. Then, they went into the film industry as distributors of adult material but always kept their three children in the dark about what their job actually was.
Interviews with Barry, Karen, employees and friends thus serve the purpose of digging deeper into the director’s submerged past and completing the puzzle of her family. Footage of marches and rallies, film clips and interviews are strewn with drippings of everyday life – conversations at the breakfast table, conjugal repartees, and just the right dose of elevating feelings – to yield the gracefully endearing fresco of a whole era in the history of counterculture. Despite a pseudo-laconic ending, Circus of Books manages to pull all the strings together and to collate personal events with overarching social narrative. Mason’s film is a delightful, fizzy way to end your day, a film that will entertain you but will also leave you ravenously hungry for more information about the Circus and – probably – the ominous HandJob magazine, which used to be the shop’s best-sold item.
So, let’s take a stroll down Santa Monica boulevard on the spurs not only of sexual cruising, but also of getting acquainted with the averagely special Mason family. At the end, you might run the risk of wanting to reopen the Circus again…